By Mike Pomranz
Updated June 01, 2015
Credit: © Phyllis Grant‎

Alaska salmon season kicked off earlier this month with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicting this year’s harvest to be the second-largest on record. In total, yield of Alaska’s five salmon varieties—sockeye, king, pink, keta and coho—could be as high as 1 billion pounds.

That’s a huge amount of salmon—a 40 percent uptick from the previous year. It’s so much extra product that even selling it all could provide challenges to the industry. It seems like an obvious solution to that challenge would be to only catch the amount of fish you can sell. Problem is, it’s not that simple. To maintain Alaska’s sustainability, which is dictated by law, fisheries have no choice but to harvest all that extra salmon. It’s part of how the industry works.

When it comes to fishing Alaska’s wild salmon, the key word is “escapement.” Salmon are anadromous—meaning they split time between fresh and salt water: They are born and reproduce in rivers, then spend the rest of their time out in the ocean. Because of this phenomenon, Alaska is able to control its salmon population by setting goals for how many salmon it wants to let into the rivers each year to spawn. This portion of fish is known as the escapement. How do you control the number of fish that return to the rivers to reproduce? You harvest all the excess fish. Here’s a simple way to think of it: The salmon that land on your plate gave their lives so that other salmon could reproduce. You’re eating extra fish that could have otherwise overpopulated the spawning grounds.

This explains why Alaskan fisheries have no choice but to harvest large runs, even if it seems like it could be more fish than they actually want. “One consequence of not harvesting large runs is competition for spawning areas, or for juvenile habitat and resources, leading to smaller runs and less potential for harvestable yields when the fish mature,” said Jeff Regnart, director of the Commercial Fishing Division for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A lot of work goes into determining these escapement goals. “Alaska’s constitution mandates sustainability, and our science-based fishery management practices are considered a model for the world,” said Tyson Fick, communications director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Fish are tracked with high-tech methods like aerial flyovers and sonar stations. It’s labor-intensive but vital to the industry.

All of this, though, is good news for salmon eaters. The huge harvest could mean more wild salmon at lower prices. “If the projected volumes pan out, Whole Foods Market expects to offer even greater values on wild Alaska salmon this summer,” said Keith Harris, Whole Foods’s port buyer. Yes, wild Alaska salmon will still be more expensive than farm-raised salmon; but this year, it could be more affordable than ever—and those in the industry believe you’re getting more than just a great-tasting product. “It’s worth paying more,” said Fick. “It’s worth supporting these fisheries, these fishing families, these communities.”